JULY 2008


The Interview

Stephen Lewis gives no quarter

(Note: this is a fuller web version of our interview with Stephen Lewis.
A shorter version appears in the July print edition of NRM.)

Policy polyglot Stephen Lewis has an impressive resumé: former Ontario NDP opposition leader, chair of the first International Committee on Climate Change, ex-UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, founder of two international aid organizations -- the list goes on. Despite having flunked out of university, he's now a professor of global health at McMaster. Mr Lewis spoke to NRM before his trip to Mexico City next month for the 2008 International AIDS Conference.

Photo credit: Liam Maloney

You're co-chair of the leadership program committee of the International AIDS Conference next month. Any plans to try to coax Stephen Harper to Mexico City? Oh, no. I'm not even sure he'd be invited. Why would he? If he didn't have enough interest to come in his own country, why would people invite him to Mexico?

Have you heard anything from him after some of the things you said publicly when he failed to show at the Toronto conference in 2006? I don't know whether I have ever spoken to Stephen Harper, to tell you the truth. I don't know if he would ever grant me the time of day.

Over the course of your time as the UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, from 2001 to 2006, several prime ministers came and went. Chrétien, Martin, and, briefly, Harper. Who was the best on African AIDS policy? Paul Martin, overwhelmingly. Chrétien, I got the impression he felt for Africa but I don't think it was around AIDS more than a pro forma commitment, but Paul Martin had a very genuine and intense commitment and, had he had more time, I think that commitment would have continued to show itself. I don't get any sense from Harper -- none whatsoever. The prime minister who cared most about Africa and did the most in development systems and foreign aid was unquestionably Brian Mulroney and he gets insufficient credit for his very real commitment to the continent. I don't think it was mirrored by Turner, by Chrétien, by Harper -- but I think Paul Martin was the most genuine.

Who would you rather have running Ottawa, the Liberals or Conservatives? Well, I'm a socialist. To me there's not a huge difference between the Liberals and the Tories. But if I was forced to the guillotine and the sword was held over my head, I'd probably say the Liberals were preferable.

Luckily I think Ottawa got rid of all its guillotines. It would have to be in that situation to get it from me.

You've worked on health policy, climate change, provincial politics, international relations - but you seem to have settled on HIV/AIDS humanitarianism. Is that where you really belong? Look, I'm a democratic socialist. My ideology is my life. I don't do this because, as some people ascribe to me I am filled with humanitarian symptoms of compassion. I don't have any more compassion than you do or the average Canadian does. I do this because it's an extension of my ideology. I believe we are put on this world to fight against injustice and to fight for equality and that is what the struggle against the pandemic means to me.

You don't think you have slightly more compassion than the average Canadian? No. If the average Canadian saw what I saw as I wander around from country to country, frankly, they would feel exactly the same way, there is no question in my mind.

I guess you could call it the family business: your grandfather Moishe Lewis was a labour leader in Montreal; your dad, David Lewis, was the federal NDP leader, which he helped found; your brother Michael and sister Janet are involved in the Ontario NDP, of which you were leader. Yeah, I'm not sure I had any alternative. My God, I was licking envelopes in Ottawa when I was three years old for [NDP pre-cursor] the CCF. For me, socialism was obligatory or I would be disinherited.

How would you have felt if your children hadn't followed suit? My wife used to wake me up in the night while she was pregnant with our first child and say to me, "What are we going to do if this child turns out a Conservative?" I told her, "Honey, don't worry, it won't happen." She was worried far more about that than any illness or disease or poverty or whatever.

As a die-hard NDP-er, how did you feel when Bob Rae chose to join the Liberal Party? Socialists who join capitalist governments are not my cup of tea. I think Bob Rae is probably one of the most talented politicians in the country but I am terribly sorry he wants to prove his talent with the Liberals.

You don't think he can change the system from within? I've never believed that. I disagree with Bob entirely about the track he has taken, but I am perfectly ready to concede he is immensely talented. I think there is a very real possibility he will be Prime Minister someday. I am not allowed to use Bob's name in my home or I'll lose my wife and my children, but talking to you, I can.

Is the current Conservative government doing a good job on healthcare? Well, let's put it this way: I don't get the sense they would seriously protect medicare if it was under ferocious assault, particularly if it was under assault from a province like Alberta where so many of the Tory seats come from and where there is such an ideological proclivity. But this is an ideological thing. They are not terribly interested in the intervention of government in the private sector, thus around climate change they have been unbelievably delinquent, in fact possibly the most delinquent government in the world on climate change.

Your energy is mostly focused on AIDS in Africa. What's your impression of the situation in Canada? The huge problems in Canada are the aboriginal populations where there seems to be no particular government interest, and the harm reduction side of it. In Canada, the transmission is injecting drug use, men having sex with men, and heterosexual, and they all need to be responded to. My impression from the AIDS activists in Canada is that the Canadian government just doesn't care very much, and the numbers are increasing. Indeed, they are increasing in every Western country.

One of the most important aspects of combatting AIDS is preventing infection from things like shared needles. But the new federal anti-drug policy focuses more on law enforcement than on harm reduction, like safe-injection sites. To me, that means ultimate political irresponsibility. It means a very casual view of human life. There is, I think, a wanton negligence on the part of the government around harm reduction and a complete rejection of all the scientific evidence we have accumulated around the world that shows harm reduction works, that clean needles work, that safe-injection sites work, that opiate substitution works, all these things work. Once again the Harper government is determined to be in synch with George Bush, is prepared to compromise the health of the population to share that ideology.

Most Canadian physicians seem to agree with you. Absolutely. Canadian physicians do not believe in criminalization. Canadian physicians believe in treatment, and that's what's required is treatment.

The International Narcotics Control Board, the drug monitoring body affiliated with the UN, says Canada's harm reduction projects are in breach of the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Not a breach at all, no. Complete poppycock.

It's been suggested by some people-- Complete poppycock! They work and meet in secret, they are simply unqualified to do the work they do, their reports are nonsensical in the judgements they make. They are completely of the mindset that drugs are always criminal, that it is not a public health or mental health problem, it's a criminal problem, so they would throw everybody into jail they can lay their hands on. They are not a trustworthy organization in my view.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation is very gynocentric. Why? Well, we're dealing with Africa and, in Africa, of the 23 million living with the virus, 61% are women. And in the critical age category where 50% of the new infections occur -- between 15 and 24 years of age -- almost 80% are women and girls. So it became pretty obvious that if we were going to respond to the areas of greatest need, it would be women and girls inevitably.

The Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, has made women his focus, too, in his microcredit initiatives. He says women are more responsible. The thing is, in Africa, women do all the work. I mean they do all the work literally -- all the agriculture, everything. But they also do all the caring, and all of their work is largely unacknowledged and uncompensated.

The UN sent you to Rwanda to investigate the 1994 genocide. After your report, world leaders vowed to never let it happen again. In light of that, has the lack of international response to what's going on in Darfur surprised you? No. Not at all. I mean, the world watched 800,000 people slaughtered in the genocide and did nothing.

One would hope we'd learn from that. Well, obviously we don't, do we? Everybody said 'Never again' and along came Darfur. And then everybody said 'Never again' and along came Eastern Congo. It may be that it's Africa. It may be there is a terrible subterranean racism at work, it may be just an indifference to the continent, but there is no justification in the world for Darfur continuing as it has been. It's just beyond the pale. The critical thing here is to go after the government of China and to make sure that they understand that this is going to be the Genocide Olympics, as it has been termed. What China is doing is sustaining the government of Sudan in an unholy alliance, wrecking the lives of the people in Darfur, is what lies at the heart of the problem.

Should Canada boycott the Olympics? No, but we should protest outside the Chinese mission in Ottawa. We should condemn China in a resolution in the House of Commons. After all, we were the country that actually moved the proposition "responsibility to protect," which the United Nations embraced in 2005. We have every right in the world to say the responsibility to protect applies to Darfur, and we cannot protect Darfur unless China behaves itself.

What did you think of the film of Roméo Dallaire's book, Shake Hands With The Devil? I loved it. I love Romeo Dallaire.

You're an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. Yes, that was a surprise.

Do you think you would've liked being a real, instead of honorary, physician? Oh, God, no. I'm squeamish. I hate the idea of surgical procedures. Whenever I have any procedure at all, I insist on complete and total anesthetic.

You know, that's not very safe. I know, but I don't care. If I cut my finger, I need massive anesthesia.

Your son Avi uncovered a lot of info about your father, David Lewis, on the CBC genealogy program Who Do You Think You Are?, including the fact that he was under RCMP surveillance most of his life. How did you feel when you heard that? I wasn't at all surprised. I think the RCMP is so discredited in this country, it just means it is an unbroken line from the days of my father. It's unbelievable. These people are so dumb and they have done so much irrelevant and destructive stuff in their lives, I can't believe the RCMP still functions.

How thick do you think your RCMP file is? I once got my file when I was in the legislature and it was all press clippings! I could have supplied them with some dandy stuff.

Like what? None of your business.

Interview conducted by Sam Solomon

5 things you didn't know about… Stephen Lewis

His favourite African cuisine I guess I enjoy Ethiopian cuisine most.

His politically surprising musical taste I am happy with Mozart or Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. I'm a traditional Tory when it comes to music.

Why health policy analysts don't have to stay in shape I regard all exercise as indecent -- I want no part of it ever in my life. Running for planes is as close as I come to exercise, but I do enjoy baseball. Every other sport is so violent I can't stand it.

Radical in politics, nonpartisan on the diamond If I'm in New York, I'm a Yankees fan. If I'm in Toronto, I'm a Blue Jays fan.

Can he name all the 28 universities that have given him honourary doctorates? I'm sure I could if pressed.



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